The high-profile difficulties faced by WPP highlight the dangers confronting large networked agencies that are unable to provide the agile service clients are demanding.
That clients increasingly expect agility isn’t in doubt – the rise of inhouse and hybrid agency models is testament to this. But not everyone is moving in this direction and stating you’re agile and being agile are not the same thing – that’s at the heart of WPP’s problems. Client demands are different these days and being agile is central to any agency’s ability to evolve.
The agile approach
At its simplest, an agile approach means listening, communicating, and managing expectations. Those elements are at the heart of every successful client / agency relationship. Agility requires an ability to adapt according to changing market needs, but there are wider elements involved. For agencies to make agility a reality there needs to be some key ingredients in place.
An agile approach can only flourish when it’s fully embedded within the structure of the agency and the wider group. Creating this more agile structure requires total focus on the client’s needs, rather than attempting to steer clients to learn how to work with the agency’s existing structure. WPP insist on client’s adapting to their systems and ways of working – the exact opposite of how things should be. That’s been a significant mistake – putting your business and ways of working above the client is never the way to go. They should educate you on their way of working, not the other way around.
You need to incorporate a flexibility that allows different client needs to be accommodated, driving a more collegiate way of working that enables a reactiveness to client requirements. It should also empower teams in the agency to deliver. For instance, agencies within a group need the autonomy to make investment decisions at a local level – rather than going up the chain for approval – empowering them to invest in certain outcomes as and when they need to. If you must wait too long for permission to do something by the time it comes through, it’ll likely be too late. WPP-type structures aren’t built for this.
Creating a responsive, agile offer in which teams are empowered to anticipate future client requirements and act on them is of fundamental importance. If you’re working in a constrained environment, or in a constricted way, the natural tendency will be to revert to old safety nets when confronted by a challenge. That type of situation makes agility impossible.
From the most senior board member to the new hires, agencies need the right people – those with a can-do attitude and a commitment to looking at things from a client point of view – working within the right structure. You need staff who can think on their feet, staff with an ability to realise what a client needs before they realise it themselves.
As well as individual attitudes, agency culture has a role to play here. Because that’s a top down thing, it’s important senior employees demonstrate proactivity when it comes to tackling problems and adapting to client challenges. It’s the classic ‘can do’ approach. bigdog is part of the Mission Group, which is made up of founder-run agencies. That kind of set-up, where senior staff across the group have experience of creating and growing their own businesses – meaning they have particularly strong insight into client pressures – encourages agility.
When to be agile
It’s also important to understand when to harness your structure and people to provide an agile offering. You can’t be fully agile all the time, nor should you be. Many processes and procedures will exist within your agency because experience indicates they are the most efficient way to do something – and these shouldn’t be thrown out wholesale on a whim. But, if they aren’t applicable to a certain situation be open to adapting your approach. Process and procedures are there for a reason, they just shouldn’t be applied rigidly all the time.
It’s also important to acknowledge that the significance of agility does vary according to client sector. In retail agility is at the forefront of everything they do, it’s intertwined with all their business pressures, so retail brand’s agencies need to respond accordingly. But in other sectors timely reactions are less crucial, they might be more focused on taking a long-term view, in which case agility might be secondary compared to other considerations.
The future is agile
A truly agile offer should be a natural by-product of an agency structured to deliver it, with people who are inclined to adapt according to client requirements. In a service-based and fast developing sector such as ours a considered, agile approach that meets clients rapidly developing demands is crucial. It comes down to good client service, a reactive response and structuring yourself accordingly.
WPP’s recent difficulties lay bare the challenges for agencies that don’t adapt (or can’t). They created a child / parent alignment rather than a collegiate way of working, trying to force things rather than working together in a natural way, first and foremost for the client’s benefit. Take too rigid an approach and your client will be left feeling you aren’t sufficiently invested in their success. You’re selling a partnership, so make sure you act like a partner.
The future belongs to the agile – and if you’re just realising that now it’s probably already too late.